Pronghorns of the Third Reich, p.1C. J. Box
Pronghorns of the Third Reich
Pronghorns of the Third Reich
C. J. Box
Open Road Integrated Media Ebook
As he did every morning, Paul Parker’s deaf and blind old Labrador, Champ, signaled his need by burrowing his nose into Parker’s neck and snuffling. If Parker didn’t immediately throw back the covers and get up, Champ would woof until he did. So he got up. The dog used to bound downstairs in a manic rush and skid across the hardwood floor of the landing to the back door, but now he felt his way down slowly, with his belly touching each step, grunting, his big nose serving as a kind of wall bumper. Champ steered himself, Parker thought, via echo navigation. Like a bat. It was sad. Parker followed and yawned and cinched his robe tight and wondered how many more mornings there were left in his dog.
Parker glanced at his reflection in a mirror in the stairwell. Six-foot-two, steel-gray hair, cold blue eyes, and a jaw line that was starting to sag into a dewlap. Parker hated the sight of the dewlap, and unconsciously raised his chin to flatten it. Something else: he looked tired. Worn and tired. He looked like someone’s old man. Appearing in court used him up these days. Win or lose, the trials just took his energy out of him and it took longer and longer to recharge. As Champ struggled ahead of him, he wondered if his dog remembered his youth.
He passed through the kitchen. On the counter was the bourbon bottle he had forgotten to cap the night before, and the coffee maker he hadn’t filled or set. He looked out the window over the sink. Still dark, overcast, spitting snow, a sharp wind quivering the bare branches of the trees. The cloud cover was pulled down like a window blind in front of the distant mountains.
Parker waited for Champ to get his bearings and find the back door. He took a deep breath and reached for the door handle, preparing himself for a blast of icy wind in his face.
Lyle and Juan stood flattened and hunched on either side of the back door of the lawyer’s house on the edge of town. They wore balaclavas and coats and gloves. Lyle had his stained gray Stetson clamped on his head over the balaclava, even though Juan had told him he looked ridiculous.
They’d been there for an hour in the dark and cold and wind. They were used to conditions like this, even though Juan kept losing his focus, Lyle thought. In the half-light of dawn, Lyle could see Juan staring off into the backyard toward the mountains, squinting against the pinpricks of snow, as if pining for something, which was probably the warm weather of Chihuahua. Or a warm bed. More than once, Lyle had to lean across the back porch and cuff Juan on the back of his skull and tell him to get his head in the game.
“What game?” Juan said. His accent was heaviest when he was cold, for some reason, and sounded like, “Wha’ gaaaame? ”
Lyle started to reach over and shut Juan up when a light clicked on inside the house. Lyle hissed, “Here he comes. Get ready. Focus. Remember what we talked about.”
To prove that he heard Lyle, Juan scrunched his eyes together and nodded.
Lyle reached behind him and grasped the Colt .45 1911 ACP with his gloved right hand. He’d already racked in a round so there was no need to work the slide. He cocked it and held it alongside his thigh.
Across the porch, Juan drew a .357 Magnum revolver from the belly pocket of the Carat hoodie he wore.
The back door opened and the large blocky head of a dog poked out looking straight ahead. The dog grunted as it stepped down onto the porch and waddled straight away, although Juan had his pistol trained on the back of its head. It was Juan’s job to watch the dog and shoot it dead if necessary.
Lyle reached up and grasped the outside door handle and jerked it back hard.
Paul Parker tumbled outside in a heap, robe flying, blue-white bare legs exposed. He scrambled over on his hands and knees in the snow-covered grass and said, “Jesus Christ!”
“No,” Lyle said, aiming the pistol at a spot on Parker’s forehead. “Just us.”
“What do you want?”
“What’s coming to me,” Lyle said. “What I deserve and you took away.”
A mix of recognition and horror passed over Parker’s face. Lyle could see the fear in the lawyer’s eyes. It was a good look as far as Lyle was concerned. Parker said, “Lyle? Is that you?”
What could Lyle want, Parker thought. There was little of significant value in the house. Not like Angler’s place out in the country, that book collection of Western Americana. But Lyle? He was a warped version of Western Americana …
“Get up and shut the hell up,” Lyle said, motioning with the Colt. “Let’s go in the house where it’s warm.”
Next to Parker, Champ squatted and his urine steamed in the grass.
“He don’ even know we’re here,” Juan said. “Some watch dog. I ought to put it out of its misery.” Meeserie.
“Please don’t,” Parker said, standing up. “He’s my bird dog and he’s been a great dog over the years. He doesn’t even know you’re here.” Lyle noticed Parker had dried grass stuck to his bare knees.
“You don’t look like such a hotshot now without your lawyer suit,” Lyle said.
“I hope you got some hot coffee, mister,” Juan said to Parker.
“I’ll make some.”
“Is your wife inside?” Lyle asked.
Lyle grinned beneath his mask, “She left you, huh?”
“Nothing like that,” Parker lied. “She’s visiting her sister in Sheridan.”
“Don’t be lying to me.”
“I’m not. Look, whatever it is …”
“Shut up,” Lyle said, gesturing with his Colt, “Go inside slowly and try not to do something stupid.”
Parker cautiously climbed the step and reached out for the door Lyle held. Lyle followed. The warmth of the house enveloped him, even through his coat and balaclava.
Behind them, Juan said, “What about the dog?”
“Shoot it,” Lyle said.
“Jesus God,” Parker said, his voice tripping.
A few seconds later there was a heavy boom and simultaneous yelp from the back yard, and Juan came in.
Paul Parker sat in the passenger seat of the pickup and Lyle sat just behind him in the crew cab with the muzzle of his Colt kissing the nape of his neck. Juan drove. They left the highway and took a two-track across the sagebrush foothills eighteen miles from town. They were shadowed by a herd of thirty to forty pronghorn antelope. It was late October, almost November, the grass was brown and snow from the night before pooled in the squat shadows of the sagebrush. The landscape was harsh and bleak and the antelope had been designed perfectly for it: their brown and white coloring melded with the terrain and at times it was as if they were absorbed within it. And if the herd didn’t feel comfortable about something—like the intrusion of a 1995 beat-up Ford pickup pulling a rattletrap empty stock trailer behind it—they simply flowed away over the hills like molten lava.
“Here they come again,” Juan said to Lyle. It was his truck and they’d borrowed the stock trailer from an outfitter who got a new one. “They got so many antelopes out here.”
“Focus,” Lyle said. He’d long since taken off the mask—no need for it now—and stuffed it in his coat pocket.
Parker stared straight ahead. They’d let him put on pajamas and slippers and a heavy lined winter topcoat and that was all. Lyle had ordered him to bring his keys but leave his wallet and everything else. He felt humiliated and scared. That Lyle Peebles and Juan Martinez had taken off their masks meant that they no longer cared if he could identify them, and that w
Lyle was close enough to Parker in the cab that he could smell the lawyer’s fear and his morning breath. Up close, Lyle noticed, the lawyer had bad skin. He’d never noticed in the courtroom.
“So you know where we’re going,” Lyle said.
“The Angler Place,” Parker said.
“That’s right. And do you know what we’re going to do there?”
After a long pause, Parker said, “No, Lyle, I don’t.”
“I think you do.”
“Really, I …”
“Shut up,” Lyle said to Parker. To Juan, he said, “There’s a gate up ahead. When you stop at it I’ll get Paul here to come and help me open it. You drive through and we’ll close it behind us. If you see him try anything hinky, do the same thing to him you did to that dog.”
“Champ,” Parker said woodenly.
“Ho-kay,” Lyle said.
Juan Martinez was a mystery to Parker. He’d never seen nor heard of him before that morning. Martinez was stocky and solid with thick blue/black hair and he wore a wispy gunfighter’s mustache that made his face look unclean. He had piercing black eyes that revealed nothing. He was younger than Lyle, and obviously deferred to him. The two men seemed comfortable with each other and their easy camaraderie suggested long days and nights in each other’s company. Juan seemed to Parker to be a blunt object; simple, hard, without remorse.
Lyle Peebles was dark and of medium height and build and he appeared older than his 57 years, Parker thought. Lyle had a hard narrow pinched face, leathery dark skin that looked permanently sun and wind-burned, the spackled sunken cheeks of a drinker, and a thin white scar that practically halved his face from his upper lip to his scalp. He had eyes that were both sorrowful and imperious at the same time, and teeth stained by nicotine that were long and narrow like horse’s teeth. His voice was deep with a hint of country twang and the corners of his mouth pulled up when he spoke but it wasn’t a smile. He had a certain kind of coiled menace about him, Parker thought. Lyle was the kind of man one shied away from if he was coming down the sidewalk or standing in the aisle of a hardware store because there was a dark instability about him that suggested he might start shouting or lashing out or complaining and not stop until security was called. He was a man who acted and dressed like a cowpoke but he had grievances inside him that burned hot.
Parker had hoped that when the trial was over he’d never see Lyle Peebles again for the rest of his life.
Parker stood aside with his bare hands jammed into the pockets of his coat. He felt the wind bite his bare ankles above his slippers and burn his neck and face with cold. He knew Juan was watching him closely so he tried not to make any suspicious moves or reveal what he was thinking.
He had no weapons except for his hands and fists and the ball of keys he’d been ordered to bring along. He’d never been in a fist-fight in his life, but he could fit the keys between his fingers and start swinging.
He looked around him without moving his head much. The prairie spread out in all directions. They were far enough away from town there were no other vehicles to be seen anywhere, no buildings or power lines.
“Look at that,” Lyle said, nodding toward the north and west. Parker turned to see lead-colored clouds rolling straight at them, pushing gauzy walls of snow.
“Hell of a storm coming,” Lyle said.
“Maybe we should turn back?” Parker offered.
Lyle snorted with derision.
Parker thought about simply breaking and running, but there was nowhere to run.
It was a standard barbed-wire ranch gate, stiff from disuse. Wire loops from the ancient fence post secured the top and bottom of the gate rail. A heavy chain and padlock mottled with rust stretched between the two. “You got the keys,” Lyle said, gesturing with his Colt.
Parker dug the key ring out of his pocket and bent over the old lock. He wasn’t sure which key fit it, or whether the rusty hasp would unsnap. While he struggled with the lock, a beach-ball-sized tumbleweed was dislodged from a sagebrush by the wind and it hit him in the back of his thighs, making him jump. Lyle laughed.
Finally, he found the right key and felt the mechanism inside give. Parker jerked hard on the lock and the chain dropped away on both sides.
“Stand aside,” Lyle said, and shot him a warning look before he put his pistol in his pocket and leaned against the gate. The way to open these tight old ranch gates was to brace oneself on the gate side, thread one’s arms through the strands until the shoulder was against the gate rail and reach out to the solid post and pull. The move left Lyle vulnerable.
Parker thought if he was prepared to do something and fight back, this was the moment. He could attack Lyle before Juan could get out of the pickup. He felt his chest tighten and his toes curl and grip within his slippers.
Lyle struggled with it. “Don’t just stand there,” red-faced Lyle said to Parker through gritted teeth, “Help me get this goddamned thing open.”
Parker leaned forward on the balls of his feet. He considered hurtling himself like a missile toward Lyle, then slashing at the man’s face and eyes with the keys. He could tear Lyle’s gun away, shoot Lyle, and then use it on Juan. That’s what a man of action would do. That’s what someone in a movie or on television. would do.
Instead, the lawyer bent over so he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Lyle and his added bulk against the gatepost was enough that Lyle could reach up and pop the wire over the top and open it.
Back inside the pickup, they drove into the maw of the storm. It had enveloped them so quickly it was astonishing. Pellets of snow rained across the hood of the pickup and bounced against the cracked windshield. The heater blew hot air that smelled like radiator fluid inside the cab. Parker’s teeth finally stopped chattering but his stomach ached from fear and his hands and feet were cold and stiff.
Juan leaned forward and squinted over the wheel, as if it would help him see better.
“This is the kind of stuff we live with every day,” Lyle said to Parker. “Me and Juan are out in this shit day after day. We don’t sit in plush offices taking calls and sending bills. This is the way it is out here.”
Parker nodded, not sure what to say.
“The road forks,” Juan said to Lyle in the backseat, “Which way do we go?”
“Left,” Lyle said.
“Are you sure?”
“Goddamit, Juan, how many years did I spend out here on these roads?”
Juan shrugged and eased the pickup to the left. They couldn’t see more than fifty feet in any direction. The wind swirled the heavy snow and it buffeted the left side of the pickup truck, rocking the vehicle on its springs when it gusted.
Parker said, “When this is over and you’ve got whatever it is you want, what then?”
Lyle said, “I’m still weighing that one, counselor. But for now just let me concentrate on getting to the house.”
“It would he helpful to know what you’ve got in mind,” Parker said, clearing his throat. Trying to sound conversational. “I mean, since I’m playing a role in this I can be of better service if I know your intentions.”
Lyle backhanded the lawyer with his free hand, hitting him hard on the ear. Parker winced.
“Just shut up until we get there,” Lyle said. “I heard enough talking from you in that courtroom to last the rest of my pea-pickin’ life. So just shut up or I’ll put a bullet into the back of your head.”
Juan appeared to grimace, but Parker determined it was a bitter kind of smile.
Lyle said to Parker, “You got the keys to that secret room old Angler has, right? The one he never let anybody into? The one with the books?”
“How far?” Juan asked. They were traveling less than five miles an hour. The snow was so thick, Parker thought, it was like being inside a cloud. Tall sagebrush just a few feet from the road on either side looked like gray commas. Beyond the brush, everything was two-tone white and light blue.
Parker looked ahead. Six or seven oblong shadows emerged from the whiteout. They appeared suspended in the air. They looked like small coffins on stilts.
The pickup inched forward. The forms sharpened in detail. Pronghorn antelope—part of the same herd or from another herd. A buck and his does. They stood braced into the storm, oblivious to the truck. Juan drove so close to them Parker could see snow packed into the bristles of their hide and their goatlike faces and black eyes. The buck had long eyelashes and flakes of snow caught in them. His horns were tall and splayed, the hooked-back tips ivory colored.
“Fucking antelope,” Lyle said. “Push ‘em out of the way or run right over them.”
Instead, Juan tapped the horn on the steering wheel. The sound was distant and tinny against the wind, but the pronghorns reacted; haunches bunching, heads ducking, and they shot away from the road as if they’d never been there.
Parker wished he could run like that.
“Few miles,” Lyle said. “We’ll pass under an archway. I helped build that arch, you know.”
“I didn’t know that,” Juan said.
“Me and Juan,” Lyle said to Parker, “We’ve worked together for the past what, twelve years?”
Juan said, “Twelve, yes. Twelve.”
“Some of the shittiest places you could imagine,” Lyle said. “All over the states of Wyoming and Montana. A couple in Idaho. One in South Dakota. Most of those places had absentee owners with pricks for ranch foremen. They’re the worst, those pricks. They don’t actually own the places so for them it’s all about power. You give pricks like that a little authority and they treat the workingman like shit. Ain’t that right, Juan?”
Parker thought: It’s like we’re the only humans on earth. The world that had been out there just that morning—the world of vistas and mountains and people and cars and offices and meetings—had been reduced for him to just this. Three men in the cab of a pickup driving achingly slow through a whiteout where the entire world had closed in around them. Inside the cab there were smells and weapons and fear. Outside the glass was furious white rage.
Pronghorns of the Third Reich by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes